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Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage

Kawaiaha'o Church and Mission Houses
Honolulu, Hawaii
historic photo of church with steeple and clock The earliest known photo of Kawaiaha'o Church
The Mission Houses are in the background, c. 1857
Courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives

Kawaiaha'o Church, in Honolulu on the Island of Oahu, is often referred to variously as the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii and the Protestant Mother Church of Hawaii. The three neighboring Mission Houses served as the most important force in Hawaiian politics, religion, economics, and social customs from 1820 to 1860. Kawaiaha'o Church, the Mission Houses, and the adobe schoolhouse on the grounds collectively symbolize the influence of the missionaries in the Kingdom of Hawai'i.

In 1819, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a Protestant organization supported by the Congregational, Presbyterian, and several other churches, agreed to expand their work to the Hawaiian Islands. A missionary party landed in Honolulu on April 19, 1820 and was quickly accepted by the Hawaiian ali'i (chiefs). King Kamehameha II assigned the missionaries land near a spring known as Kawaiaha'o and directed Hawaiian laborers to build them thatched houses in which to live. The missionaries resided in the houses and used one room as a meeting place for school during the week. Within four decades of its founding, the school had helped to raise the literacy rate on the island to 80 percent.

In 1821, the growing congregation in Honolulu constructed a thatched-roof wooden church a short distance toward the sea from the site of the present church. This church burned down in 1824, but Chief Kalanimoku, the Prime Minister of the Hawaiian Islands, ordered another erected near the original. In 1825, the first public ceremony of Thanksgiving took place in this chapel. A storm demolished a temporary chapel built in 1825, to accommodate large crowds. A third meetinghouse was erected in 1827, and a fourth in 1829.

modern phot of stone church with steeple, clock, four columns, and steps leading to front door Kawaiaha'o Church
Photograph by Joel Bradshaw, 2007, Wikipedia

Queen Kaʻahumanu, who was co-regent during the reigns of King Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III, commissioned the construction of a stone church in 1836. The church was built in the style known as "Hawaiian Mission," a combination of New England architectural styles and Hawaiian building methods and materials such as coral blocks. It took several years to complete the church, with supplies brought by ship from Boston, Massachusetts and 14,000 coral rocks, timber and lime gathered locally. The cornerstone was laid on June 8, 1839, and the dedication ceremony took place on July 21, 1842. Kawaiaha'o Church is still an active church and is considered the center of worship for the Hawaiian peoples, with services conducted in both English and Hawaiian. Kawaiaha'o Church was used for inaugurations, weddings, funerals, and Thanksgiving ceremonies associated with the Kingdom of Hawai'i.

In 1843, King Kamehameha III held a Thanksgiving ceremony at the church and reportedly spoke the words which became Hawaii's motto "Ua mau ke ea o ka aina I ka pono" (the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness). Known by several different names—Stone Church, Honolulu First Church, the King's Chapel—the name Kawaiaha'o Church, came into official use in 1862. The church was used not only as a place of worship, but also for state functions such as investiture and funerals of Hawaiian monarchs. In the early 20th century, the church was suffering from severe termite infestation and in 1925 it was almost entirely reconstructed. The reconstruction returned the interior of the building to its original New England design.

The Kawaiaha'o Church grounds are landscaped with plants native to the Hawaii Islands. The Kawaiaha‘o Fountain, built in the 1920s using stones from the nearby ancient sacred Ka Wai a Ha'o spring, is located next to the church. Also located on the grounds is the tomb of King Lunalilo.

The three Mission Houses—the Oldest Frame House, the First Printing House, and the Chamberlain House—played important roles in Hawaiian politics, religion, economics, and social customs from 1820 to 1860. When the American missionaries arrived in 1820, they found the native Hawaiian culture disappearing under the impact of European culture and technology and offered a new set of ideals and standards around which the Hawaiians could orient their lives. The missionaries introduced western medicine and customs and created a dictionary of the Hawaiian language. They were advisers to the government and introduced western-style laws and democracy, assisted in keeping the islands free of European governmental influences, and reinforced political and economic ties with the United States. They also introduced new agricultural methods and crops, allowing individual Hawaiians to become independent freeholders. The Mission Houses were the center for these efforts that shaped modern Hawaii.

The Oldest Frame House was not the first frame house built in the islands, but it was the most impressive. In 1819, when the first group of missionaries planned to leave Boston for Hawaii, a shipping firm donated an entire disassembled Maine white pine frame house for use by women in the islands. The house did not arrive in Honolulu until December 25, 1820, eight months after the missionaries landed. In 1925, the Mission Children's Society inherited the house.

Two wooden buildings, both two-story and painted white, set on a grass lawn Oldest Frame House (r) and Chamberlain House (l)
Courtesy of Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site & Archives

David Chamberlain began building the First Printing House in December of 1822. The missionaries needed a means of printing and brought a second-hand press with them to the island. Completed in December of 1823, the shop, standing at just 28 by 17 feet, is thought to be the first printing house west of the Rocky Mountains. By 1828, due to increased volume and demand, the press moved to a larger space across the street. The First Printing House is the oldest surviving building associated with the Hawaiian Mission press. Today the house serves as a museum; a replica of the first printing press and its print work are on display in the building along with other items from the early mission period.

The Chamberlain House got its name from Levi Chamberlain, who came to Honolulu in 1823 to store food, clothing, furniture, and other supplies needed by the various island mission stations and to distribute supplies as needed. In 1830, Chamberlain started to build a two-story, coral-stone building with a cellar and attic, similar to houses of the same period in New England. The house had a design that suited it to the New England climate, not Hawaii. Upon completion of the building in December of 1831, Chamberlain's family moved into three rooms on the lower level. In 1910, the Mission Children's Society acquired ownership of the house.

Today, Kawaiaha'o Church is still an active place of worship and the Mission Houses, located across the street, are part of the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives. Both sites are open to the public.

Plan your visit

Kawaiaha'o Church, is located at 957 Punchbowl St., Honolulu, HI. The Mission Houses are located at 553 S. King St., behind the church and across the street. The sites together are a National Historic Landmark. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The Kawaiaha'o Church grounds are open daily. For more information and for the church hours, visit the Kawaiaha'o Church website or call 808-469-3000. The Mission Houses are open Tuesday-Saturday from 10:00am to 4:00pm. The houses are closed on Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. There is an admission fee with discounts for students, seniors, and the military. Guided house tours are offered on the hour from 11am to 3pm. For more information, visit the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives website or call 808-447-3910.

Both the Kawaiaha'o Church and the Mission Frame House have been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey.

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